"Come and See" is a flawless masterpiece which casts most other "war" films (let's be honest and call 99% of them "action movies") into a dark shadow. The plot is simple and brutal, following a young Byelorussian boy - Florya - into the horror of World War Two on the Eastern front. An hour after the end credits one might start to feel anger through the numbness. Nazi Germany would seem the natural target, but it's also worth despising what’s happened to the memory of the war since 1945. It has increasingly become glorified and "remembered" by people who clearly fail to understand what it meant or what it might actually have been like, and so little of the vast canon of work surrounding that epochal time means anything compared to the last film of Elem Klimov.
War is not Hell, because Hell only punishes the guilty. Come and See takes the epic battlefield, the villainous German and the heroic Allied soldier and buries them. What we are forced to witness instead is the desecration of youth and normality, the amazing collective acceptance of people's roles in war, and what murder on this scale feels like when distilled down to a near-Medieval locality. Everyone's bloody part in it is played out on the earthy and hyper real backdrop.
Klimov achieves what Terrence Malick attempted in his flawed-but-grand return "The Thin Red Line". He does it with more grace and without resorting to attempts at philosophy and overwrought narration. Malick expected us to read deeply into the images of nature, from leaf to animal, obliviously co-existing with mayhem. Klimov simply shows us this continuation to add to the layers of realism. A large stork pokes it's head inquisitively into a bivouac in one of the films most striking images, and as it peers around the viewer is transported to the moment. The use of sound adds to this effect, as when Florya's ears ring following an artillery barrage and we hear only the muffled shouts and bangs behind the piercing howl in his head. The effect is not intended to make the viewer step back - as would be the case in a surreal work - but to step in. We are behind or alongside characters as they run across a field, there are few if any long-range shots that are not from another character’s perspective and much of the dialogue is spoken directly to the camera, in fact to the audience. We are not one character, but all of them, and we see the horrors through their eyes and hear what they hear.
Central to the sheer brutish power of the film is the performance of Aleksei Kravchenko. It's hard to think of many actors who have ever come close to what is achieved by him and Klimov in every shot and scene. He was just fifteen when the film was made in 1985, and yet here is a performance so mind-boggling real, so pure. Many of the cast could out-perform the actors forging their wealthy careers in Hollywood where a rave-review happily follows along behind any turn featuring some stage-school blubbing and shouting. Nothing remotely approaching Kravchenko's performance has ever been achieved by more than a handful of people in the world of cinema.
Klimov, too, deserves to be lauded to the rafters. Following this film he voluntarily quit the "business", having accomplished what he set out to do. In some ways, his decision is justifiable, yet it seems a terrible shame that this undoubted genius of cinema stopped after just twelve pictures. However, it would be nigh-impossible to make anything matching Come and See. His most incredible achievement of all in this film is not the lengthy village massacre, but a single unexpected moment with such power that it leaves you gasping. Florya and his beautiful female friend Glasha search the deserted home village of Florya's family. He suddenly takes off towards where he believes his family have all gone to hide from the Nazis and she runs with him, yet as she does so she glances back. Piled against the back of the barn are all the townsfolk, butchered. She lets out a howl and runs on with the oblivious Florya. There is no “Why, God, why!” floor-pounding, no clichéd “We have to get through this” earnest baloney or tacked-on faux-romantic subplot, and there is no doubting that this is the one war movie everyone should see.
This film has been called surreal and impressionistic, but this is the wrong conclusion. Come and See is reality and truth. It represents the struggle to survive and the burdens we bear after living through disgraceful times. Come and See, but be prepared to despair in so many ways.